There is valid concern over the level of pesticides in Chinese herbs. Of course, pesticides are also prevalent in the U.S. But at least here, we have more transparent labeling to go along with greater access to organic options. However, most of the herbs used in Chinese medicine in the States are still sourced from China.
One positive development in Chinese agriculture is that new Regulations on Pesticide Administration (RPA) went into effect on 6/1/17. It is an action taken on China’s reputation of being the world’s largest producer and consumer of pesticides.
But this is not a deep dive into government policy. Just from a preliminary review of RPA, it appears to focus on registration, licensing and management of pesticides; not on safety testing or a consideration of organic farming.
Besides, any positive health outcomes from new regulations would take time to flower in the market. Meanwhile, Chinese herbs currently on the market still present a risk of pesticide exposure.
So, what can we do?
- Wash raw herbs
There is a system of self-regulation within the Chinese medicine community. Firstly, there are a growing number of small-scale farms outside of mainland China—where consumer protection and environmental stewardship is greater—that are cultivating Chinese herbs. This includes within the U.S.
Secondly, for herbs that do come from China, several manufacturers and distributors offer Certificates of Analysis (CoA) for any batch of herbs, upon request. These certificates testify that not only a safe level of pesticides, but also of heavy metals and microbials, exists in the given batch.
I currently source my herbs from Mayway or Crane Herb. Both offer CoA’s. However, since I do not stock herbs, the presence of Chinese herb shops in San Diego offers the benefit of quicker access to herbal prescriptions in the case of acute conditions.
While it is unlikely you will find CoA’s at these mom-and-pop herb shops, there may be less of a concern in that the therapeutic value of the herbs can outweigh the effect of their short-term or minimal use should they contain unwanted byproducts.
To be clear, even with that pro-con analysis, many patients choose to forgo the local herb shops. That is a valid choice, and one that is respected.
Note: While I mainly use Mayway or Crane Herb (whose herbs come mostly from China), some Chinese herbs are available from Mountain Rose Herbs. They practice organic farming in the U.S. Selection and availability of their Chinese herbs varies.
Washing Raw Herbs
If you are using raw herbs, you can rinse the herbs under tap water for at least 30 seconds to remove pesticide residues.
The residue shedding effect is mechanical, i.e. it is the act of rubbing while rinsing that does the job. The effect appears to be regardless of pesticide water-solubility, so the use of any detergents or specialty washes would add little value. This is based on a study of fruits and vegetables by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
Granted, washing herbs is not the same as washing fruits and veggies. Herbs are typically dried. So if they’re leafy, they’re brittle and not ideal for rubbing. And many herbal formulas consist of many small pieces of ingredients. So I recommend vigorous rinsing while tumbling the herbs in a strainer.